Seymour Hersh’s OBL fantasy

Seymour Hersh’s latest report on OBL blends heavy doses of his own imagination with anonymous sources.

A still image from a video tape showing the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in an unspecified location [Getty]
A still image from a videotape showing the late al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in an unspecified location [Getty]

The latest “investigative” reportage of Seymour Hersh about US President Barack Obama’s version of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad has raised more questions than answers. Washington’s official version of OBL’s liquidation was reminiscent of the cover-up story about the arrest of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein years ago.

Later, the US narrative was contradicted. Whether true or otherwise, both high profile events fuel scepticism about the stories the world’s sole superpower tries to sell to the world. Both journalists and the general public remain hungry for credible accounts of such episodes.

Like Saddam’s arrest, Washington opted to mislead and misinform the world about the circumstances relating to OBL’s eventual elimination through a clandestine marine operation. Ironically, many established journalists get lured into creating fiction or reporting hearsay as the “inside story”.

Bin Laden still haunting Pakistan and US ties

Taking advantage of the absence of a credible account, overly ambitious journalists blend heavy doses of their own imagination with anonymous sources.


Hersh is the most recent among them to succumb to the temptation of sensationalism. His anonymous sources are either Americans or Pakistanis.

There does exist an eyewitness with a credible and less politicised perspective on the happenings of May 2, 2011 and before. She is Amel al-Saqa, bin Laden’s Yemeni wife. The journalist forgets to inform his readers as to whether he met or even tried to speak to her. I’m inclined to believe that she remains a treasure trove of untold information.

Hersh’s expose tries to establish that Pakistan had been keeping bin Laden in safe custody since 2006 near Abbottabad. The Pakistani military allegedly sold him for $25m, a difficult assumption to digest for those who know Pakistan and the operations of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Both stakeholders, the US and Pakistan, denied the journalist’s claims.

Today’s readers are sharper and informed enough to notice absence of named talking heads in story as revealing as Hersh’s.


While Hersh stands by his story, his fellow journalists and readers find it hard to swallow due to the absence of a single named source. For a veteran investigative journalist who has to his credit scoops like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1969, and Abu Ghraib prison torture practices, the 10,000-word report leaves much to be desired.

Today’s readers are sharper and informed enough to notice the absence of named talking heads in a story as revealing as Hersh’s. Like politicians, journalists too can’t get away with misinformation in this age and time.

The London Review of Books’ story is difficult to believe at many levels. It’s not plausible to accept that Pakistan, which had allegedly been keeping OBL in custody, would hand him over for peanuts.

How could the US accept to deal with a long time ally in the war against terror that has been hiding Washington’s most wanted criminal? Why did the US not raise a global outcry instead of maintaining relations with Pakistan in a business-as-usual manner?

Not a totalitarian regime

By design, the US is not a totalitarian regime which can get away with covering up mind-blowing clandestine operations such as killing the al-Qaeda supremo.

Aside from this reportage, Hersh has in the past also tried his best to exonerate Hezbollah from the assassination of Rafiq Hariri through two similar long-form stories which have been proven inaccurate by the UN special tribunal.

The demolished site in Abbottabad, where OBL was killed [EPA] 
The demolished site in Abbottabad, where OBL was killed [EPA] 

Two years ago, Hersh attempted to absolve the Bashar al-Assad regime from the responsibility of using chemical weapons in Ghota in the outskirts of Damascus. Laughably, his report had put the blame on Turkey.

With uncanny similarity, he alleges Saudi Arabia of financing Osama Bin Laden’s stay in the Pakistani city for over five years. In an attempt to hit two birds with one stone, Hersh tried to portray Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as having no regard for international norms and laws, thus the world should not work with either of the rogue states.

As a journalist and academic, I believe that this reportage is mostly politically motivated. No matter how celebrated a reporter one may be, one is never immune to the fundamental principles of fair and balanced journalism.

Ahmad Zaidan is Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.